ONE of the strangest processions ever witnessed in Sunderland took place in 1864.
A group of more than 20 woman, huddled protectively around a bleeding boy, slowly made their way from Spring Garden Lane to the police station at Bodlewell Lane on June 22.
“At the centre of the group, and clinging on tightly to the little lad, was Isabella Ridley. The poor woman had clearly been in a fight that morning,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.
“The boy was injured too, bleeding profusely from wounds to his head. One thing was for certain, no one would get to the bairn ever again – Isabella, and her posse, would see to that.”
When the group of shawl and pinny-bedecked bodyguards finally arrived at the police office, the station sergeant almost chocked on his mid-morning cuppa.
A few hours later however, heading down to Spring Garden Lane with a bunch of statements under his arm, he still had choking in mind – but it was someone else he longed to throttle.
“The subject of his extreme distaste were East End couple John and Mary Lawrence. But it wasn’t just him who was after their blood – it was the whole community,” said Norman.
Mary Lawrence was John’s second wife. His first wife, the mother of his seven-year-old son Richard, had died a few years earlier, leaving John free to marry again.
And while Mary was obviously glad of the extra money the hard-working young mason brought to her table, she didn’t want his son. A fact she would make very plain.
“The woman at the centre of the angry posse, Isabella, was Richard’s aunt. It was she who warned the Lawrences on many occasions about their ill-treatment of the boy,” said Norman.
“She had promised her sister on her deathbed that she would look out for the lad, and it was a promise she kept. But, over the years, she had seen Richard become more and more frail.
“Bumps and bruises appeared on his body and, even though it was obvious the couple didn’t have an ounce of love for the wee lad, they refused to let Isabella take care of him.
“On June 22, 1864, things came to a very violent head. Isabella had turned up as usual to check on Richard, always an unwelcome visitor, and what she saw made her blood boil.”
As Mary Lawrence sat smugly at the kitchen table, puffing on a clay pipe, Richard was lying naked on the floor. He had been thrashed with a metal poker and was bleeding profusely.
“Isabella was incensed and screamed at Mary, asking her why she had beaten the poor child. Lawrence leapt at Isabella, grabbing her hair and dragging her into the street,” said Norman.
“But Isabella was made of stern stuff. She pushed Mary to one side and, under a hail of blows, snatched up Richard and dashed out into Spring Garden Lane to make her getaway.”
Isabella’s screams brought all the local women out of their houses. “Look what she’s done to the babby!” Isabella cried, opening her shawl and showing them the bleeding youngster.
As Mary Lawrence, now joined by her husband, made a grab for Richard, the women instinctively gathered around Isabella and Richard – forming an impenetrable shield.
Ten minutes later Richard Lawrence was being examined by the police surgeon, Dr. Francis, while Mary and John Lawrence were making themselves very scarce.
“Richard was in a pitiful state. He was crawling with vermin and in a truly deplorable physical condition. Regular beatings and starvation had taken their toll,” said Norman.
“As the police went out searching for the Lawrences, Isabella headed home with Richard wrapped in her shawl. The plucky East Ender must have thought her job was almost done.
“But, out of nowhere, John Lawrence appeared from the shadows and smashed his fist into her face. Richard, who had already suffered so much, fell screaming onto the stone flags.
“Once again the local women ran from their houses to come to their rescue. Before the day was over the Lawrences had been thrown into police cells awaiting a court appearance.”
At court next day, however, the pair pleaded not guilty and the case was adjourned. John Lawrence was remanded in custody and Richard, unbelievably, was ordered to return home.
Only a screaming fit by the boy, who clung desperately to his aunt, reversed the decision. “Two days later, the Lawrences appeared before magistrates to face cruelty charges. John Lawrence was additionally charged with assaulting Isabella,” said Norman.
“The case was reported throughout the UK but, despite her terrible behaviour, Mary was only jailed for two months. John would have walked away scot free if he hadn’t belted Isabella. Indeed, it was only because he broke Isabella’s nose that he was punished at all. Even then, he only got a couple of months in prison for his troubles.”
l Norman Kirtlan is the author of several local history books. Copies can be purchased from Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, any Saturday or Wednesday morning.